Taylor Kerby constantly feared that he would not live up to God’s love, no matter how many prayers he offered, no matter how often he read the scriptures, and no matter how pure he kept his thoughts. .
Growing up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Kerby suffered from scruples, an obsessive-compulsive disorder that focuses on moral rectitude and results in pathological guilt.
As a teenager, this religious mania “all encompassed, flowed into every aspect of my life, and informed the most insignificant decision,” Kerby writes in her new book, “Scrupulous: my obsessive compulsion for God.”
In these excerpts from the Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast — edited for length and clarity — he shares his thoughts on the debilitating condition.
When did you first notice your scruples?
I was very obsessed with doing the right thing from an early age, but didn’t realize it was a problem until later in life. From time to time [as a young teenager]I would feel this need, this really urgent need, to pray for forgiveness right now.
Sometimes I would have a thought that I thought was wrong, or I would think back to something I had done earlier in the day that I thought was wrong. And I would feel this need to kneel down and pray right there.
Once I was in a grocery store, and all of a sudden I felt this need. I had stepped on the wrong tile… And for some reason the tile was not only wrong, but it was offensive to God in some way, and I needed to kneel down and I needed to pray for forgiveness. I found an excuse to look down on a shelf in the store, and I knelt down and prayed for forgiveness there in the store, [repeating the words, “Dear Heavenly Father, please forgive me for my sins in the name of Jesus Christ].”
Another example, I was at a slumber party and I was maybe, you know, 12 or 13 years old. And all of a sudden I felt like I was full of sin, something was wrong, and I needed to pray right now, and my friends didn’t know what was going on. passed. I kept excusing myself to go to another room. Even though it was painful for me as a young child, I always thought it was normal, right? That I was just living the gospel the right way.
Did your parents know what was happening to you?
My parents knew that I was really concerned about being worthy and doing the right thing… But I don’t think they recognized that it was obsessive compulsive disorder that needed therapy and a help.
When my dad was a bishop, it was actually really convenient for me because I could go into his room and say, “Dad, I did this, you know, a really inconsequential thing. Am I still worthy?
And he would say things like, “I know you’re worthy. You don’t need to ask me if you’re worthy. And it was very helpful to me. I really think that if I had grown up with a different bishop, maybe someone who didn’t know me as well, that might have really added to my distress.
Did discussions at church about sexual intimacy trigger your obsession?
[Yes.] Growing up in the church, when you’re in the youth program, there’s a lot of emphasis on not having sex. I was still a normal 14, 15, 16 year old boy going through puberty. And we know that sexual thoughts can’t be completely avoided and, in fact, maybe they shouldn’t be completely avoided, right?
So I found myself as a child, sincerely trying to get rid of any sexual thoughts or feelings that came to mind.… What ended up happening was a circle of distress where I would continue to have impure thoughts and… the more I fixed on them, the more I was aware of their presence and the more I was aware of my inability to live a righteous life completely free of these sexual thoughts.
How was your mission as a Latter-day Saint, which has additional rules to follow and others to feel guilty about?
I was called to the North Washington, DC Chinese-Speaking Mission, and we were the only Chinese-speaking missionaries in the Washington, DC area.
I was placed with these two companions [who only had a couple of months left on their two-year missions]…and had just finished missionary life. I walked in and said, “No, guys. We are going to be the best missionaries we can be. We’re going to follow all the rules and we’re going to do all of that. »
They said, “Look, I don’t know who you think you are or what you think we’re doing here, but we’re, you know, we don’t want to do any of that.
[They] wouldn’t get up on time in the morning, which is one of the rules, and sneak to our apartment complex’s business center at night and watch TV [a violation of mission rules]. It was the most painful situation I could have been in, because now I’m in a position where no matter what I do, my mates aren’t going to follow the rules, and one of the rules is that I have to be in sight and sound of these people.
Another time we were at someone’s house, who wasn’t a member of the church, and she put together a movie. Watching movies is against the rules as a missionary. I expected my companions to stand up and say, “Actually, we have to go do something else and leave.” But they sat on the couch and watched the movie.
So now I was faced with a dilemma: either I leave the room, in which case I’m breaking a rule by not being in sight and sound of these companions, or I sit on the couch, in which case I would break a rule while watching a movie.
Either way, I feel that I am now unworthy. Unworthy of the Holy Spirit, who will lead me to people who need Jesus Christ. And it was just incredibly, incredibly painful.
How did you finally cure your scruples?
By going to therapy and changing my theology. … We believe that Jesus Christ paid for our sins. And we believe that no matter how good we are, we can’t be perfect enough that Jesus Christ still doesn’t have to pay for our sins. OK. I believed growing up that the best way to worship God, the best way to be a church member, was to make myself as good as possible. And in the book, as I call it, is that I transformed myself, my own righteousness and purity, into an idol god. I really loved how good I was rather than worshiping Jesus Christ and God the Father.
I had to make some changes in my way of understanding God, the gospel, the church. Once I made these changes in my mind, I was able to have a good and peaceful existence within a church to which I am still very devoted and that I love very much.
I have come to believe that Jesus Christ is not really interested in how I can make myself good.… In other words, my theology now is to reach outward in caring and by loving others. And oddly enough, as I took my theology and tried to make it look outward rather than inward, my scruples also diminished.
What suggestions do you have for how church leaders could help people who might be facing this?
Generally. I think it’s important for church leaders to understand that people, especially young men and women in their congregation who seem to have it all together, who work very hard, those people should be concerned about them.
We need to be careful how we praise our young people in the church. We want to make sure that we don’t make justice their core identity. To that end, I would recommend praising certain actions they perform rather than praising who they are.
It is important for leaders to be on the lookout for scruple, to look for ways in which the obsession with righteousness becomes unhealthy for children.
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